Roots of the Kenyan Struggle For Independence

Conflict and resentment defined the the colonial experience between the white settlers and native Africans. With Nairobi evolving from a shantytown in the early 1900s into a major urban center for East Africa, white settlers slowly migrated to the country lured by the prospect of land. They settled in the fertile highlands outside Nairobi, an area later dubbed the "White Highlands." Both the Maasai and the Kikuyu tribes lost large amounts of land to these European settlers. Their resentment grew deeper with each acre lost and the inevitable conflicts would not fully be resolved until independence.

Successful large-scale farming depended to a great degree upon an adequate labor force, namely Africans. They, however, did not see any advantage or gain in working for the European encroachers. In response, the colonial authorities introduced hut taxes and other laws that forced the Africans into low-paying wage employment. This marked the introduction of a cash economy into a land dominated by the barter system.

World War I provided a hiatus in white settlement but after the war Britain gained possession of this region under the Treaty of Versailles and began a policy of inequitable land distribution that further fueled growing African resentment. The government offered land in the Kenyan highlands to war veterans at inexpensive prices but only white veterans, not African veterans, could take advantage of this offer. White settlers streamed in and increasing numbers of Kenyans, led by the bitter Kikuyu, formed political groups whose primary focus was the return of their land.

Kenyan nationalist movements and the Emergence of Jomo Kenyatta

The first pan-Kenyan nationalist movement was led by Harry Thuku to protest against the white-settler dominance in the government. His party, the East African Association, traced its roots to the early Kikuyu political groups and was supported by several influential and militant Asians. Thuku was arrested by the colonial authorities in 1922 and was exiled for seven years. His arrest resulted in the massacre of twenty-three Africans outside Nairobi's Central police station. He was released only after agreeing to cooperate with the colonials, a decision that cost him the leadership of the Kikuyus. This incident united Kenya's African communities and set the stage for the entry of Jomo Kenyatta, a former water meter inspector with the Nairobi Municipal Council, who stepped in and filled the leadership vacuum after Thuku.

Jomo Kenyatta was born in Gatundu; the year of his birth is uncertain, but most scholars agree he was born in the 1890s. He was born into the Kikuyu ethnic group. Named Kamau wa Ngengi at birth, he later adopted the surname Kenyatta (from the Kikuyu word for a type of beaded belt he wore) and then the first name Jomo. Kenyatta was educated by Presbyterian missionaries and by 1921 had moved to the city of Nairobi. There he became involved in early African protest movements, joining the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) in 1924.

In 1928 he became editor of the movement's newspaper. In 1929 and 1931 Kenyatta visited England to present KCA demands for the return of African land lost to European settlers and for increased political and economic opportunity for Africans in Kenya, which had become a colony within British East Africa in 1920.

Jomo Kenyatta is revered as the founding father of modern Kenya
Kenyatta remained in Europe for almost 15 years, during which he attended various schools and universities, traveled extensively, and published numerous articles and pamphlets on Kenya and the plight of Kenyans under colonial rule. While attending the London School of Economics, Kenyatta studied under noted British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and published his seminal work, Facing Mount Kenya (1938).

Following World War II (1939-1945), Kenyatta became an outspoken nationalist, demanding Kenyan self-government and independence from Great Britain. With other African nationalists such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Kenyatta helped organize the fifth Pan-African Congress in Great Britain in 1945. The congress, modeled after the four congresses organized by black American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois between 1919 and 1927 and attended by black leaders and intellectuals from around the world, affirmed the goals of African nationalism and unity.

In September 1946 Kenyatta returned to Kenya, and in June 1947 he became president of the first colony-wide African political organization, the Kenya African Union (KAU), which had been formed more than two years earlier. KAU's efforts to win self-government under African leadership were unsuccessful, however, and African resistance to colonial policies and the supremacy of European settlers in Kenya became more militant.

African and Asian African Resistance to the British

The Mau Mau Movement began among the Gikuyu who shared the same grievances with all other Kenyan peoples. At the same time, land shortages among the Gikuyu were particularly bad. There were many settler farms in Gikuyuland and a lot of Gikuyu land had been taken for European settlement.

World War II only increased African discontent as Kenyans fought side by side with their colonial masters. During the five year conflict Africans were exposed to many new influences and developed an awareness that the white man was far from invincible. Empowered by this new outlook, African veterans went home to Kenya with the realization that a return to the status-quo was impossible. From the end of the War in 1945, Africans regularly presented their grievances to the colonial government in Nairobi and the government in London. Under the leadership of Kenyatta, the Kenya African Union (KAU) became a national party with wide support from the people. It too, had played its part in demanding a settlement of African grievances. The Government however, did nothing except make promises. Meanwhile the white settlers were themselves pressing Britain for independence under white minority rule. Many Africans were beginning to think that what could not be achieved by peaceful means might be achieved by violence. After all, the colonial government had been promising reforms for a long time. Nothing had come of the promises.

In 1952 the Mau Mau began advocating violence against the colonial government and white settlers. Kenyatta did not advocate violence but the colonial authorities arrested him and five other KAU leaders in October 1952 for allegedly being part of Mau Mau. The six leaders were tried and, in April 1953, convicted.

While Kenyatta was confined the Mau Mau were fighting a guerilla war. Most of the fighting took place in the Central Province, Aberdares (Nyandarua), around Mt. Kenya and in Nakuru District. There were attacks on police stations and other government offices as well as on settler farms. As British troops fought the Mau Mau in the forests, the colonial government took strict measures against civilians. Many people were detained in concentration camps while others were forced to live in "protected" villages. It was not until 1955, that the British gained the upper hand against the Mau Mau, in spite of the much better arms and equipment of the Royal Army and Air Force. Even after 1955 fighting continued in some areas.

Dedan Kimathi was a feared leader of the Mau Mau guerrillas who rebelled against British colonialism in the 1950s. After 1955, the most effective weapon used by the government against the Mau Mau were the 'pseudo gangs' composed largely of former guerrillas which were later renamed the Special Force Teams. Up to 1955 these units had been led by whites, and were led by loyal Africans thereafter which would go into the forests on seek and destroy expeditions against the Mau Mau hideouts.

Kimathi's capture on 21st October 1956 in Nyeri and signified the ultimate defeat of the Mau Mau and essentially ended the military offensive against the Mau Mau. He was captured in 1956 and executed in February 1957 - one of about 5,000 guerrillas to die in the struggle, in which 12,000 civilians also perished. Such was the fear of Kimathi becoming a martyr for his followers that when he died (mysteriously) in prison, his body was buried in an unmarked grave whose location has not been revealed even up to today.

The Home Guard and Special Force Teams were responsible for undermining and neutralizing the Mau Mau organization through their spy network and other measures.

Other measures included the setting up of controlled villagers as a punitive measure against areas suspected of being solidly behind the Mau Mau. By early 1955 some estimate that over a million Kikuyu had been settled in these villages.

Mau Mau Gang training
Dedan Kamathi

Achievements of Mau Mau
The main achievements of the Mau Mau movement can be summarized as follows: -

  1. The British government in London learned that the colonial government in Kenya could not govern Kenya properly and then relied on British troops to solve the problems it had helped create.
  2. The British government learned the British rule in Kenya could be maintained only by the use of massive military force. Mau Mau freedom fighters armed with home made and captured weapons had engaged thousands of highly-trained British troops. The cost of the war was very high. Furthermore it was unpopular with many of the conscript troops who sympathized with the aims of the African nationalists, and also many people living in Britain.
  3. Mau Mau made it perfectly clear that the Africans of Kenya knew their rights and were prepared to fight and die for them.
  4. The emergency brought Kenya to the attention of the world through press and media reports. It became impossible for the British to continue claiming that most Kenyans were happy and content under their rule.
  5. The Mau Mau War put an end to the hopes of white settlers for independence under the white minority rule. As a result of Mau Mau the British government began planning for Kenyan independence under majority rule.
Source: GHC, A Combined Course, Malkiat Singh, 1986

British Responses

In 1959, freehold titles in large numbers had been issued to Africans, new farm supports were in place, and a campaign was underway to employ landless people. The growth of the Agrarian middle class had started to pick up.

During the above time period the Trade Unions were gaining momentum and Mr. Makhan Singh was prominent. However, Makhan Singh was quickly disposed off by the colonial authorities for allegedly having admitted to being a communist.

Other Resistors: The Asian African Community

In fact, the Asian African community had long been involved in dissent and political activity against oppression Kenya. As Kenyan history shows, there are figures such as A.M. Jeevanjee and M.A. Desai, who continuously and successfully challenged and controlled settler ambitions for their self-rule in Kenya on the apartheid model of South Africa. Makhan Singh and Pio Gama Pinto spent years in detention in the struggle for Kenya’s freedom. Pio Pinto, over the 35 years since his assassination, remains a major influence and national role model for Kenyans. Joseph Murumbi was the voice in exile of a silenced Kenya during the Emergency, and later Foreign Minister and second Vice-President.

In law, advocates such as A.R. Kapila, Fitz de Souza, and Jaswant Singh defended Bildad Kaggia, Jomo Kenyatta, Paul Ngei, Fred Kubai, Achieng Oneko and Kungu Karumba at their trial at Kapenguria (1952-53). They and others such as Chanan Singh defended in hundreds of Mau Mau Causes and appeals.

In the struggle for the freedom of the Press, Asian African journalists and publishers also played a critical part . These included Haroun Ahamed, Editor, The Colonial Times, D.K. Sharda, Sitaram Achariar (The Democrat). N.S. Thakur, and four generations of the Vidyarthi family. Achariar also printed the Gikuyu newspaper Muigwithania, (1928) the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) paper edited by Achieng Oneko. Among others that the Vidyarthis published were Sauti ya Mwafrika, the Kenya African Union (KAU) newspaper, Henry Githigira’s Habari za Dunia, Henry Mworia’s Musmengerere, and Francis Khamisi’s Mwalimu. The printing of all these papers for the forty years between 1920 and 1963 were direct challenges to the colonial government which sought to suppress the African voice against colonialism and for freedom.

Sources: See Joseph Harris THE AFRICAN PRESENCE IN ASIA(Evanston, North-Western UP, 1971);
Joseph Harris ABOLITION &REPATRIATION IN KENYA Historical association of Kenya
Pamphlet No.1 (Nairobi, East African Literature Bureau, 1977); Ochieng Omondi; THE SIDDIS OF INDIA(Nairobi, Asian African Heritage Trust, 2000).


After nine years, in August 1961, Kenyatta was freed as Kenya was moving towards self-government under African leadership. Kenyatta was embraced as the colony's most important independence leader and he assumed the leadership of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), a party founded in 1960 and supported by the Kikuyu and Luo. He led the party to victory in the pre-independence elections of May 1963 and was named prime minister of Kenya in June. Kenyatta led Kenya to formal independence in December of that year. Kenya was established as a republic in December 1964, and Kenyatta was elected Kenya's first president the same month.

Growth after independence
Kenyatta knew that independence was not really the end of the struggle, but the beginning. The hopes of millions of Kenyans for a new way of life and better standards of living would not be easy to fulfill. On the 1st Madaraka Day, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta reemphasized what he had told the nation a few days earlier when KANU won the polls. He said that Madaraka was a progressive step towards the attainment of independence, that constitutional advance was not the greatest end in itself.

Independence was, to the majority of people, expected to be a turning point. The Africans, the majority expected a reversal of all things in their favor. For the European settlers who had enjoyed everything in the pre-uhuru governments, there was fear and uncertainty over their future. They visualized a vengeful African dominated government probably bent on some measures of retribution. The Asian group also feared as they had enjoyed some privileges and controlled the young nation's commercial life.

"Harambee" A call towards self-sufficiency
The slogan "Harambee" was given to Kenyan workers for the purposes of national development. Kenyatta likened the task ahead of the new nation to that of workers with a burden which would only be overcome by working together to successfully heave up or put together their heavy load.

As president, Kenyatta worked to establish harmonious race relations, safeguarding whites' property rights and appealing to both whites and the African majority to forget past injustices. "Harambee" (Swahili for "let's all pull together"), deliberately asked whites and Africans to work together for the development of Kenya. However, many of his compromise policies over time became unpopular with radicals within KANU, who advocated a more socialist state structure for Kenya. One of the key persons in this disagreements was Oginga Odinga.

Oginga Odinga was born in 1911 in Siaya District and was a student of Maseno and Alliance High School. He then went to Makerere University and in 1940, he returned to Maseno High School as a teacher. In 1948, he joined KAU and in 1957 was elected to the Legislative Council as member for Nyanza Central. He was one of the founder members of KANU in 1960 and was its first vice-president. When Kenya became a Republic in 1964, he was President Kenyatta's first vice-president. However, his disagreement with Kenyatta eventually found he and his supporters being forced out of the party in 1966.

Move To A Uni-Party State

Odinga formed the rival Kenya People's Union (KPU), which drew much support from Odinga's ethnic group, the Luo. In response, Kenyatta used his extensive presidential powers and control of the media to counter the challenge to his leadership and appealed for Kikuyu ethnic solidarity. The 1969 assassination of cabinet minister Tom Mboya-a Luo ally of Kenyatta's-by a Kikuyu led to months of tension and violence between the Luo and the Kikuyu.

Kenyatta banned Odinga's party, detained its leaders, and called elections in which only KANU was allowed to participate. For the remainder of his presidency, Kenya was effectively a one-party state, and Kenyatta made use of detention, appeals to ethnic loyalties, and careful appointment of government jobs to maintain his position. Kenyatta was reelected president in 1969 and 1974, unopposed each time.

Kenyatta died in office in 1978 and was succeeded by Kenyan vice president Daniel arap Moi. Moi pledged to continue Kenyatta's work, labeling his own program Nyayo (Swahili for "footsteps").

Kenya After Kenyatta

Daniel arap Moi's various presidencies has been characterized by rifts and dissension. Many observers state that he takes criticism badly and this often has resulted in the disbanding of tribal societies and the disruption of universities. The level of dissension reached a new peak with a coup attempt by the Kenyan Air Force in 1982. This was put down by forces loyal to Moi and the air force was disbanded and replaced by a new unit. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a push for democratic pluralism sweeping Africa and one outcome was that international aid for Moi's Kenya was suspended. In the 1992 Moi finally allowed the restoration of multiple political parties.

However, what would have been the major opposition, the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) was unable to agree on a leader. By FORD's splitting into three parties, Moi, the beneficiary of his opposition's vanity, won with just one-third of the total vote.

In 1995, a new party was launched in an attempt to unite the splintered opposition. The party was Safina, founded by Richard Leakey, famed anthropologist,elephant saviour and political activist.

Elections were held in Kenya at the end of 1997. Despite widespread allegations of vote rigging and intimidation of opposition candidates, Moi once again scraped home with a little over 40% of the vote.

2002-Mwai Kibaki is elected as third president of Kenya

Born in 1931 on the slopes of Mount Kenya, he is from Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu.After studying in Uganda and London, he became a lecturer, but in the early 1960s gave it up to help in Kenya's push for independence. He helped draft Kenya's constitution, was elected as an MP in 1963 and has held his seat ever since.

He was finance minister throughout the 1970s and vice president for much of the 1980s, serving ably under the country's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and then his successor President Moi.

When a long-standing ban on opposition parties was lifted in 1991, Mr Kibaki left the ruling party, Kanu, to found the Democratic Party, which he still leads. He came third in the first multi-party elections in 1992 and then came a close second to President Moi in the last polls in 1997 when there were 15 candidates.

Pio Gama Pinto

Joseph Murumbi

Daniel arap Moi

Richard Leaky

Mwai Kibaki